How Martin Schmidt took Mainz from relegation candidates to European contenders

Ever since Mainz got promoted to the Bundesliga in 2009, they’ve encountered the reasonable problems re maintaining their status as a top flight club that are common for ‘smaller’ clubs. With now Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel, Mainz managed to finish in the top half three times in five seasons from 2009 to 2014, though, even qualifying for the Europa League on two occasions (but with little success once they got there).

When Tuchel left the club in May 2014, his replacement ended up being Kasper Hjulmand, who had won the championship in Denmark with FC Nordsjaelland just two years prior. Despite a surprise early exit from Europe at the hands of Greek side Asteras Tripoli in the Europa League qualifiers, things started well under the Dane’s tutelage, with Mainz going undefeated over the first eight rounds of the league campaign.

From there though, it all just got worse and worse for Hjulmand which culminated in an early end to his Mainz adventure after just nine months in the job. Just one win followed in the next thirteen rounds and after losing at Borussia Dortmund, the decision was made to sack him with the club just hovering above the relegation zone by a solitary point.

martinshcmidtThen, in a surprise appointment, Mainz named Martin Schmidt as his replacement. Schmidt,48, was born in Naters, Switzerland and had managed Mainz’s reserve team for nearly five years.  He led Mainz II to the 3. Liga the year prior, which was the greatest achievement in their history. Aside from that accomplishment though, Schmidt was a nobody in football who had never played the game professionally and had only managed reserve teams in lower leagues for about a decade prior to his installment as Mainz manager.

As soon as he took over, Schmidt made his mark on the team in his very first game by permanently settling on a 4-2-3-1 formation, something he has barely budged from ever since. Unlike Hjulmand, Schmidt has had a preference to play traditional wingers rather than inverting them so immediately we saw the likes of Jonas Hofmann, Christian Clemens, and Pablo de Blasis change sides. This change led to an improvement in Mainz’s width play and a higher amount of crosses into the box, which in turn led to more frequent goal-scoring and this kept them afloat for another year in the Bundesliga as they finished in 11th place for the season.

Despite the successful attempt to avoid relegation, this wasn’t enough for Mainz to keep ahold of their best assets as they ended up losing Johannes Geis, Shinji Okazaki, Koo-Ja Cheol, and Park Joo-Ho while others from last year’s team like Jonas Hofmann also departed. It looked to be a difficult task for Mainz to replace all these players and another season of relegation struggles seemed to be in their destiny unless Schmidt and sporting director Christian Heidel could pull off some real coups over the summer window.

It was exactly that, though, which they managed to achieve. Twelve players were signed over the transfer period, all for relatively bargain prices, and most of them have been successful thus far in Bundesliga play. The new signees included Danny Latza, Gaetan Bussmann, Yoshinori Muto, Jhon Cordoba, Leon Balogun, and Fabian Frei who all arrived for under €10M in total and all in all, only a fraction of the money made from the outgoing player sales was spent, while the results have been much improved from last term.

Several factors can be attributed to Mainz’s successful season so far. Loris Karius has continued his development well and his current form makes him one of the top young German talents in the goalkeeping position. Nigerian Balogun and Alexander Hack, who was promoted from Mainz’s reserve squad and worked with Schmidt there, have brought healthy competition to the central defense. Former Metz man Gaëtan Bussmann, who didn’t play a single minute in the Hindrunde, has looked like a shrewd addition so far in the Ruckrunde where he’s played every single minute and managed to displace Pierre Bengtsson in the starting lineup.

Further forward, Frei and Latza have done well to soften the blow of losing their inspirational young midfielder Geis while Jairo Samperio, who missed much of last season due to injury, has played a key role this term with seven goals and eight assists to his name. The double signing of Cordoba and Muto, who was arguably the revelation of the Hinrunde, has helped everyone forget all about Okazaki, as the pair have combined for ten goals and five assists this year.

Perhaps most responsible to their upturn in fortunes is the marked improvement of Yunus Malli and Christian Clemens. Schalke loanee Clemens only mustered one goal last season despite getting ample amounts of playing time, but this year he’s stepped it up and become a prominent figure for the team with six goals and five assists. Malli has been even better, having scored ten and laid off five to his teammates, which has led to some serious interest from other clubs and almost saw him join his old boss Tuchel at Dortmund over the winter.

As important as players like Geis and Okazaki were to this team, they have been replaced well and cheaply, for which credit has to be given to Heidel, who’s headed to run Schalke’s club this summer. Schmidt, though, has brought the best out of players and gotten a level out of some that not many believed they could reach. His motivational skills, consistent selections, and faith in his players has allowed them to reach the heights that they’ve gotten to at this stage of the season, sitting in sixth place with a 13-5-10 mark. He’s turned Mainz into the old force they once were under Tuchel, despite taking over in a tough situation and having a large overturn of the playing squad in his first twelve months in charge, even if he was relatively unknown to the German footballing circle before his arrival.

Moreover, the Swiss coach has coaxed victories over the likes of Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg, Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, and Schalke all in this campaign alone and as a result of that, he’s gotten Mainz realistically dreaming of European football once again, this time perhaps even directly vaulting into the group stages of one of the two competitions for the first time in the club’s history.

Mainz currently sit in 6th place, which guarantees Europa League football in the summer for them if they continue to hold that spot, and are just four points off third place and Champions League group stage football which is occupied by another one of this year’s Bundesliga surprise packages, Hertha Berlin. There’s only six games to go so the dream is not too far away from a reality as it once was for Mainz.  A result this weekend at the home of Wolfsburg, fresh off a 2-0 home win against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals, could help seal the deal for Schmidt’s overachieving men. And what a story that would be, considering that they were battling in the confinements of a possible relegation just over a year ago.

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Edin Halilovic

Edin is a Bosnian currently residing in the United States whose interest in the Bundesliga and German football in general has been increasing heavily in recent years. Follow him @edinh_96